Wisconsin, Kentucky Move Toward Clean Air Flexibility

Published May 1, 2006

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board and Kentucky Senate dealt a pair of defeats to environmental activists seeking to limit businesses’ flexibility in installing pollution control equipment.

Wisconsin Approves Flexibility

On February 22 the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board unanimously approved new air quality regulations mirroring federal efforts to give manufacturers more flexibility in installing pollution control equipment when upgrading plants.

The board, which had initially indicated it believed the flexible plan would lead to increased pollution, reached a different conclusion after more careful study of the issue.

“We don’t think it will amount to an increase in pollution,” Al Shea, administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on February 22.

Cuts Red Tape

According to Shea, a study provided by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce demonstrated that a similar, federal plan to allow upgrade flexibility might actually cut emissions. Key to the equation is the belief that the removal of excessive red tape would enable manufacturers to upgrade their facilities more quickly, leading to a more immediate implementation of pollution-reducing equipment.

Supporting that belief, Shea told the Journal-Sentinel, is the real-world experience of Michigan and Minnesota, where there has been no measurable increase in emissions since flexible rules were instituted in 2003.

Activists Criticize

Some environmental activist groups criticized the Wisconsin board’s decision. “This is taking us backwards,” Sierra Club attorney Bruce Niles told the Journal-Sentinel.

“The new rules are more realistic and forward-looking than the old rules,” countered Scott Manley, director of environmental policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, in an interview for this article.

“The current permitting process is so expensive and so confusing that it works to discourage modernization that would improve air quality,” Manley explained. “Additionally, many projects that would actually lead to reduced emissions currently are treated as leading to increased emissions, so the improvements never occur. This is a disincentive to modernize facilities and improve Wisconsin’s air quality.”

The rule may also save jobs, supporters say. “Without this (rule), we might have to consider putting a (production) line somewhere else,” Chip Brewer, a regulatory affairs executive with S.C. Johnson & Son in Racine, told the Journal-Sentinel.

Louisville Regs Questioned

In Kentucky, the state Senate on February 27 approved a bill that would invalidate the City of Louisville’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction (STAR) program and require a 60 percent majority of the Louisville Metro Council to revive the program or approve any air pollution requirements more stringent than state or federal standards.

The bill, SB 39, was drafted in response to concerns that the STAR program would put Louisville manufacturers at a disadvantage compared to other regional manufacturers. The United Auto Workers and Ford Motor Company are especially concerned, warning the program may lead to rising costs and layoffs among Ford’s 9,000-employee Louisville workforce.

State Sen. Dan Seum (R-Louisville) sponsored SB 39, which passed with a 27-10 majority.

The bill’s fate is uncertain in the House. House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark (D-Louisville) agrees Louisville’s STAR program is too stringent. However, a stand-alone House version of SB 39, sponsored by Reginald Meeks (D-Louisville), appeared temporarily dead while Louisville city officials and business representatives engaged in talks designed to salvage a less-stringent STAR program.

Frustrated by the House’s inaction on SB 39, Seum has attached it as an amendment to a lead poisoning bill that has already cleared the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. While the fate of compromise talks remains uncertain, House action on SB 39 appears to be on hold.

Negotiations Continue

According to the March 24 Louisville Courier-Journal, the City of Louisville has offered to tweak the STAR program in several ways but has yet to compromise on any of the program’s core components. According to the Courier-Journal, the city has offered to expand an exemption to certain natural gas boilers; defer to federal guidelines in factoring the costs of control technologies; not punish businesses that only moderately exceed STAR limits; and loosely define pollution abatement requirements regarding Ford’s Fern Valley Road plant.

“The commitments made, clarifications provided, and changes discussed thus far give the [Ford] company additional clarity about the impact of STAR on their business while not reducing the public health and safety goals of the program,” said Bruce Traughber, secretary of Louisville’s community development cabinet, in a letter to Rep. Larry Clark (D-Okolona), according to the Courier-Journal report.

Ford spokeswoman Jennifer Moore told the Courier-Journal Ford is pleased with the city’s willingness to modify its program, but the company still cannot support the proposal.

Seum promises to continue to push for SB 39 in the current session and in the next if necessary, if Louisville fails to reach agreement with STAR opponents.

Indiana Has Similar Debate

The Kentucky legislature’s debate is similar to one that began in Indiana last year, when the legislature considered prohibiting the state or localities from enacting environmental rules more stringent than federal standards.

“Interest in the stringency of regulations remains strong in the Indiana legislature,” said Patrick Bennett, vice president of environment, energy, and infrastructure for the Indiana Manufacturers Association. “The Indiana Environmental Quality Service Council (EQSC) will examine the issue over the summer months.

“Indiana and Kentucky routinely compete for economic development opportunities. The issue of stringency in regulation is important to industrialized areas along state borders,” Bennett added. “Indiana Senate Bill 234 [which prohibits the state from enacting more stringent environmental restrictions than federal standards] passed this session and will keep the regulatory stringency issue alive for discussion.” The bill is awaiting action in the state House.

James Hoare ([email protected]) is an attorney in Syracuse, New York.